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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 5: Moonwalker

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on November 28, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

The Moon is Walking

Willa: You know, Joie, we’ve been chatting for over a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker, Michael Jackson’s only full-length film, which is kind of shocking.

Joie: It is shocking, isn’t it? And it never even crossed our minds until fairly recently.

Willa: Well, actually, it’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, just bubbling away, but it just never felt quite ready somehow.

Joie: I think we were sort of dancing around it because we just weren’t sure which way to come at it, you know?

Willa: You could be right. There’s so much to talk about, it’s kind of overwhelming! But this week I was hoping we could begin looking at Moonwalker, and I think a good place to start is its structure.

When Moonwalker first came out it was generally well received, but it was criticized for not having a central plot running through the entire movie. The primary criticism was that it felt like a bunch of videos stuck together, rather than a feature-length film. And it’s true that Moonwalker is structured as a series of short segments. In other words, it’s more like a book of poems than a novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cohesive structure. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems, but it still has a highly complex structure, and so does Moonwalker. However, like Leaves of Grass it’s structured thematically, rather than relying on a central plot.

Joie: That’s an interesting analogy, Willa – comparing Moonwalker to Leaves of Grass in terms of structure.

Willa: Well, I just think it’s odd that critics seem to assume every feature-length film has to be structured like a novel. There are a lot of different ways to express ideas and emotions through film – like Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass. It doesn’t have a plot or characters or dialogue, but it still communicates a powerful message – and it does so using a structure that’s appropriate to the ideas and emotions it’s trying to convey.

A useful way to approach this, I think, and begin thinking about the structure of Moonwalker in a different way – not as “lacking” a plot but as striving for something different – is to compare it with The Band Wagon, a 1953 film Michael Jackson loved starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father). The Band Wagon does have something of a plot, which in a fascinating loop-de-loop way is the story of its own creation, but that plot is really just a device for showcasing the talents of the main character, Tony Hunter. As one of the on-screen playwrights describes it, it has “just enough plot to make him do lots of gay and varied numbers.” Structurally, The Band Wagon is primarily a series of shorts that are related thematically, just like Moonwalker. And in fact, Moonwalker can be interpreted as an artistic response to The Band Wagon, with the individual segments correlating in interesting ways.

Joie: I know you talk a lot about The Band Wagon in your book, Willa, and I found it all very fascinating. But I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it but, I’ve never sat and watched the entire film from start to finish.

Willa: Oh Joie, you’ve gotta see it! You know, I hadn’t seen it either before I started working on the book, but I was having a really hard time figuring out what was going on in Smooth Criminal. It’s like I could feel all these contradictory emotions I couldn’t explain and couldn’t understand. So I went looking for clues in The Band Wagon since it was a major inspiration for Smooth Criminal, and that sent me back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. And really, looking at those three together as a progression opened up Smooth Criminal for me in ways I never could have predicted. I see it in a completely different way now that simply wasn’t available to me before.

So you simply have to see The Band Wagon, Joie. It’s really fun – I think you’ll eat it up – and I bet you’ll see lots of connections to Moonwalker. There are so many fun little references like costumes and props and dance moves, and the two films are structured in similar ways as well.

The Band Wagon opens at an auction of some of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects, as Used in His Starring Roles.” His iconic cane, top hat, and white gloves (two, not one) are up for sale, but no one is bidding. At his peak, Hunter had a string of hit Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, but he hasn’t had a hit in years and the public has lost interest in him. We then meet Hunter himself as he overhears passengers on a train talk about how “he was good 12 or 15 years ago, but the columnists … say he’s through.”

Finally he arrives in New York, and he’s pleasantly surprised when a flock of reporters gathers in the train station to ask him questions. However, they abandon him as soon as their real target, Ava Gardner, appears. Hunter then breaks into a sad rendition of “By Myself” as he walks quietly through the train station.

The repeated message of these opening scenes is that Hunter was once harassed by his celebrity – by the crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame – but ironically, now he’s tormented by their absence. It’s a sure sign that his career is in serious decline, for one thing, and he knows it – and so do the fans and reporters.

Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. Especially when contrasted with the opening scenes from Moonwalker. The movie opens, of course, with concert footage of Michael performing “Man in the Mirror.” And those concert shots are interspersed with famous, and infamous, shots throughout history with lots of politicians and humanitarians and starving children and such. And we also see lots of shots of fans in the audience screaming and fainting and going nuts as they watch him up on stage.

And then, when the song comes to a close, we suddenly hear various audio clips of scenes throughout his lifetime: being introduced with his brothers as the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, a song being announced on the radio, building a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his home, being admitted to the hospital when his hair caught fire on the set of the Pepsi commercial, Thriller being listed as the biggest-selling album of all time, becoming the first artist to generate six number one singles off one album. We even hear President Ronald Reagan’s voice commending him on his great success.

And we hear all of this as a camera pans around what is presumably a dressing room or a bedroom and we see sparkly costumes, the sequined glove, old home photos and such sitting next to Grammy Awards and MTV Awards, and pictures of him with Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. Even an adorable shot of baby Michael sitting on a couch, and the intended message is clear – this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known. In fact, the very next song we hear is “Music and Me,” a poignant reminder that Michael Jackson and music have indeed been together a very long time.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about that quite that way before. I was aware of the focus on his celebrity, but didn’t think about the fact that it spanned so much of his life, beginning in childhood – that “this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known,” as you said.

Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost the exact opposite situation from the one Tony Hunter finds himself in on that train. Michael’s career, though it began a very long time ago, is still in full swing and he’s still harassed with the ‘crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame,’ as you said earlier.

Willa: That’s true. So he’s in a very different stage of his career than Tony Hunter, and while The Band Wagon shows us the problems an artist faces when his career is in decline, Moonwalker shows us there are problems when he’s at his peak as well. He explores that more fully in the Speed Demon and Leave Me Alone segments that follow the opening section. We talked about both of those in September – specifically how he’s exploring the complicated issue of fame, and how that’s been a wonderful opportunity for him but a difficult burden as well.

And I’m very interested in what you just said about the opening montage of “famous, and infamous, shots throughout history,” as you put it. By beginning that way, Moonwalker places art in a very different context than The Band Wagon does. It’s implying that this isn’t just about Michael Jackson as a person, entertainer, and cultural icon. There are other issues at stake – issues of global importance that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Joie: That’s very true, Willa. And I think perhaps the message here is that music can have a real impact on those issues of global importance. Or maybe that the artist making the music – since he is so connected to his audience – has the power to impact those global issues. Using the power of art as a means of social change.

Willa: I agree, and of course we know he felt very strongly about the power of art to not only bring people together, but also challenge our perceptions and beliefs and lead us to see things in a different way. So in this section, he’s really raising some important philosophical questions about the function of art. And there’s a direct correlation to that in The Band Wagon also – for example, in its signature number, “That’s Entertainment”:

As we can see very clearly in this clip, the primary issue is high art versus popular art, and as Nina pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago, there were specific historical, cultural, and even political reasons for why that was such an important topic back then:

Film scholar Rick Altman, who wrote a very helpful book (“The American Film Musical”), … writes that one of the social functions of musicals is to articulate some ways by which millions of Americans, many of whom were European immigrants in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – when the genre was in its heyday – could know themselves AS Americans, and establish a sense of national identity and solidarity. So a number of binary oppositions are set up in the narrative, in order to achieve this. In the “show musical” (a major subgenre), the opposition between “high” and “low” culture is often key to the whole story. Films like “The Band Wagon” set up a contrast – and competition – between forms that emanate from the European classical tradition (like ballet, modern “art” dance, symphony orchestra, string quartet, etc.) vs. things like American popular forms like swing, jazz, pop, and show tunes themselves! In this way, “The Band Wagon” (and even more, “Singin’ in the Rain”) become a kind of advertisement for Hollywood and American show business itself. Of course, good ol’ American knowhow wins out at the end….

So as Nina points out, the “key to the whole story” of The Band Wagon – and many other musicals of that era – is this competition between (American) popular entertainment and (European) high art. Of course, this disconnect between pop art and high art is something Michael Jackson faced as well. His work was misinterpreted and horribly undervalued by critics, I think, because it was seen as “just” entertainment, so they failed to see the artistry of his work.

Joie: I love that comment from Nina!

Willa: Isn’t it great?

Joie: It really does underscore the issue of high art vs. popular, or low, art. And you’re right. Michael Jackson faced this issue constantly during his career and his work was often criticized as being “just” entertainment, or too commercial, if you will. But in Moonwalker – and not just in that opening segment but, throughout the whole film really – he seems to be focusing on using his art to attempt to bring about that change he sings of in “Man in the Mirror.”

Willa: He really does – we see that from the opening shots of Moonwalker to the haunting rendition of “The Moon is Walking” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the closing credits. He’s much more interested in exploring the cultural functions of art, and how art can be used to effect deep cultural shifts in how we perceive and interact with one another. As you said so well, Joie, “Using the power of art as a means of social change.” We see that idea repeated throughout Moonwalker – for example in “Badder,” which is all about kids using the power of art to stand up to gangs.

Joie: That is a really interesting section of Moonwalker, Willa. That whole “Badder” section. I think most people really love that part because it’s so not what you expect when the camera pans up from the silver-tipped boots, all the way over the buckles and belts costume, up to the face. It’s a little bit of a shock seeing that cute little boy staring back at you. But the interesting part to me is that they then recreate the entire Bad video using this cast of amazing child dancers.

You know, I’ve always thought it was really cute and fun to watch. But, since talking to you, I have come to realize that almost every artistic thing Michael did, he did it for a specific reason. So that makes me wonder … what is really going on in this “Badder” section? What’s the message or the lesson here?

Willa: Well, that’s always a complicated question, but one way to approach it is by comparing it with what’s going on in The Band Wagon, because once again there’s a direct correlation. While the “Badder” section of Moonwalker has child actors dressed up as adults, and singing and dancing as adults, the “Triplets” number in The Band Wagon has adult actors dressed up as babies, singing and dancing as babies. But if we look at the lyrics, we see they aren’t really like babies at all:

We do everything alike
We look alike
We dress alike
We walk alike
We talk alike
And what is more
We hate each other very much
We hate our folks …
How I wish I had a gun
A wittle gun
It would be fun
To shoot the other two
And be only one

It’s a funny segment but surprisingly violent, and actually the humor comes from the irony of these little lisping toddlers (“A wittle gun”) harboring such bloody thoughts about their siblings. Here’s a video clip:

So “Triplets” takes a situation we tend to think of as very safe and domestic – three babies in highchairs – injects it with an unexpected note of violence, and explores the comic aspects of that. But of course, by the time Michael Jackson created Moonwalker, the world had changed. Many neighborhoods were erupting in gang violence, children were getting caught in the crossfire, and the idea of children thinking bloody thoughts wasn’t funny any more. So he’s approaching the issue of children and violence in a very different, and much more serious way.

Joie: I have to say, Willa, it is a little bit startling to me to watch that “Triplets” clip because the words of their little song are so very violent. It’s odd really, and I think that’s because of what you just said. The world was a very different place back when The Band Wagon was made and this kind of joke wasn’t looked at in the same way it is today. Very interesting.

Willa: It is, isn’t it? There’s a similar relation between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, which are the penultimate numbers of The Band Wagon and Moonwalker. “Girl Hunt Ballet” ends with Fred Astaire’s character shooting and killing the woman he said he wanted to care for and protect, which is pretty shocking. Here’s a video clip.

But what’s really shocking if you stop and think about it is that this number is a comedy – just like the murderous infants in “Triplets.” And again, Michael Jackson reworks that, making it darker, more serious, and more complicated by encouraging us to care about the murdered woman. As he asks over and over again, “Annie, are you ok?”

We could spend a month just talking about the many parallels and contrasts between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, but Nina shared a clip a few weeks ago that highlights some of those connections – not only to Smooth Criminal but also You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” And there’s a subtle reference in Billie Jean as well.

Joie: That is so interesting, Willa. You know, before we began talking, I never knew that Michael had taken so much inspiration from The Band Wagon before. In fact, I love old movies and musicals but, I never even paid much attention to all the similarities before you started pointing them out to me. And now that you have, it is just fascinating!

Willa: Isn’t it? It’s so amazing to me how he drew inspiration from so many sources – and not just in a superficial way, but in a way that makes you realize just how knowledgeable and engaged he was with all these different genres. Not long after he died, Kobe Bryant talked a number of times about how Michael Jackson turned him on to classics like Fred Astaire movies and other big Hollywood musicals. Here’s a clip from a press conference:

And when you really look at those movies and compare them to Michael Jackson’s work, you see how deeply they influenced him. Nina has commented about this a number of times – like here when comparing Say, Say, Say to Singing in the Rain.

Joie: That’s very insightful. I never would have made that comparison before.

Willa: Oh, I’ve learned a lot from Nina’s comments. You know, she’s a filmmaker and artist (she’s made some really interesting Michael Jackson collages) as well as a professor of film studies, and she just seems to have a wealth of knowledge about filmmaking and film history at her fingertips.

That brings us to the finale of each. The Band Wagon ends with an emotional reprise of “That’s Entertainment.” So the final message of The Band Wagon seems to be that Tony Hunter’s career may have been in decline, but he’s still a star, still a talented entertainer, loved and respected by his peers – and that includes his costar, a classically trained “high art” ballerina who has fallen in love with him. So on several different levels, the finale reinforces the message that entertainment, meaning popular art, reigns supreme over high art.

Joie: Well, the final message I get from Moonwalker is that popular art, and perhaps music in particular, is universal. It has the capacity to draw people together – people from all walks of life, all nationalities, all races, all ages, and all economic ends of the spectrum. And the final song I think illustrates that message well. It’s Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and it’s perfect. A rock song written by the incomparable Lennon and McCartney and sung to perfection by the biggest entertainer in the world, who just happens to be a Black man. Come together, indeed.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Joie: You know, it really does. And so does the title “That’s Entertainment.”

Willa: That’s true! They both summarize the central theme of the film in the title of the last song. How interesting!

And then Moonwalker adds a little lagniappe by giving us Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “The Moon is Walking” during the final credits. I just love the mood of that song and the way they perform it, and I love the way the background images shift back and forth between scenes from Smooth Criminal and the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in period costumes, as if they were part of Smooth Criminal as well. And I love the repeated refrain, “Come and see, the moon is dancing.” To me it feels like they’re testifying.

You know, Michael Jackson’s character is so connected to the moon in this film (after all, the title is Moonwalker) that, for me personally, that line feels like a testament to the power of art – his art. He probably didn’t mean it that way – he probably just liked the synchronicity of the words “Moonwalker” and “The Moon is Walking.” But that’s what I think of when I hear “Come along, my brother / Come along, my sister / Come and see, the moon is dancing.” They’re testifying to the power of his art.